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The value of being heard

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by Shaun

Shaun Groves writes about the ups and downs of fatherhood and how he manages to stay sane in spite of (or maybe because of?) being a dad. Shaun is a dad of four and travels the world singing and speaking on behalf of Compassion International. He is also his household’s reigning Candyland champion.

“What’s doobie?”

She’s five – I thought. I also thought things like: She must have seen cable at Uncle Brian’s house. Now we’ll have to move. I never liked Uncle Brian much anyway. I thought things like that. Normal, rational things. Then I took a deep breath and feigned calm.

“A doobie is like a cigarette. People smoke it. Okay?” I pulled out my chair and she pulled out hers.

“If you smoke cigarettes you die,” she stated with the confidence of a Surgeon General.

“Yeah… pretty much. I guess that’s true, sweetie. Smoking can make you sick and some people even die.”

“Mommy says you die.”

“Yeah… So do you understand what a doobie is now?” I spilled a box of crayons onto the kitchen table and handed her a stack of construction paper, hoping the interrogation was over and we could draw together instead, or at least have lighter father-daughter conversation about, I don’t know, colors of finger nail polish she’s into this week or how to make a fart sound with your armpit. Anything.

“Can you take me to see them make doobie?”

“Well, it’s not like shovels or pencils. I mean, they don’t make them in a big factory somewhere like that… I don’t think.”

I imagined a steel box miles wide and long. Inside, union workers pull levers and pack joints in printed cartons and head back to their homes in the suburbs when the whistle blows at five.

“They grow plants. Then they cut the plants down and dry them out in the sun. And then they crunch up the plants when they’re dry and roll them up in a little piece of paper. And that’s how you make a doobie — how they make a doobie. But we can’t go see them do that.”

“Then they make it on fire like a cigarette and they breathe it and die,” she continued matter-of-factly while adding a red smile to the yellow sun beaming down from the upper right corner of her paper.

“Pretty much.” My page was still blank. Suddenly realizing how dry my mouth was, I stood to get a glass of water. “Do you want anything to drink?”

“No. Why can’t we see them make it?”

“Doobie? I mean doobies? Well, it’s against the rules to make doobies, sweetie. Doobies are drugs. Some drugs are good for your body, like cold medicine and stomachache medicine, you know, and some drugs are bad for you. If you use drugs that are bad for you, or hang out with people who take drugs that are bad, the police can write you a ticket.”

“And go to jail.” Tiny pink billowy flowers bloomed from the end of her crayon along the bottom of her paper.

“Yeah, sometimes.” I swallowed mouthfuls of cold water and prayed there were no more questions. When did my little girl become an expert on our criminal justice system?

“Why do people smoke doobies? They’re gonna go to jail.”

“You know how when you get scared at night, you like Mommy to come sit with you? And when I get sad, I like to make music or color with you?”

She nodded.

“Some people are really sad or really scared, and they think if they use bad drugs they’ll be happy… I guess.”

“But they get dead.” And with that, she slid down from her chair and posted her work on the refrigerator with a magnet and a look of satisfaction.

“So if anyone ever talks to you about trying drugs, you need to come tell Mommy or Daddy or Uncle Brian or Aunt Amy, okay? So we can tell you if it’s a good drug that will make your body well, or if it’s a bad drug. Will you do that? Okay?”

“Yeah.” She removed another page from the stack in front of her and gripped a black crayon in her fingers. “I’m making a farm.”

“Okay. Well, is that all you wanted to know about doobies then?”

She nodded.

She drew a cow and a farmer and a barn. I drew a factory with odd smelling smoke coming from its chimneys.

I couldn’t stand it any more.

“Where’d you hear about doobies, Gabriella?”

“On the radio they sang, ‘doobie doobie doo doo.’”

“Oh.” And I pinned my drawing to the refrigerator alongside her smiling sunshine and pink flowers.

Lesson learned.

That five year-old is ten now, and she hasn’t stopped asking tough questions. How can that girl be pregnant if she’s not married? How did Uncle Joel get cancer? Do I have to go to college? Am I pretty?

And just like when she was five, she’s not always asking what it seems. Behind every question mark may hide complex, little girl worries and wonderings and stories she’s afraid of or doesn’t know how to share.

It takes time, eye-to-eye, back and forth, to get to the stuff beneath the question, to what’s really on her mind.

And this may be what little people — especially little girls — need most from their dads. To be heard. For the world to stop, the laptop to close, the TV to turn off, the newspaper to be folded and put away — to matter enough to be heard and truly understood.

Before being answered.

So I take walks with my kids around the block at dusk. We start the bedtime routine a little earlier than we used to so there’s plenty of time for end-of-day questions and confessions from the bunk beds. We go on dates, one on one, for a Cracker Barrel breakfast or a pretzel at the mall or an afternoon of hiking through the woods.

Or I spill a box of crayons on the kitchen table and pray no one asks about doobies.

How do you connect one-on-one with your kids? In what ways do you go out of your way to understand your kids?

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Comments

  1. “On the radio they sang, ‘doobie doobie doo doo.’” HAHA! so funny! but i also like how you patiently explained what doobies are and how they are made and why some ppl smoke them. my son has not yet started talking but im def in no rush to have him start talking… the tough questions await me

  2. avatar
    domestosgoddess says:

    Oh, you have to listen and be sure you’re answering the right question, a lesson a teacher friend of mine learned years ago when a little girl in her class asked where she might go to see a pianist and my friend misheard.

  3. I smiled when you got to the bit where she tells you where she heard the word. Great job explaining it, by the way.

    I’m so excited for my little girl to start to talk! She’s already taught me so much about myself, and that process is only going to get better when she can meet me on the level of words.

  4. I do not have kids yet but one thing I appreciated about my parents is that they would take me & me three siblings out monthly for some one on one time. We would each get a few hours with mom or with dad and had their full attention. It made us feel so loved, so important, & was a great way to connect. I still remember some of the mother/daughter or father/daughter dates that I went on w/ my parents growing up. Kids got to pick the activity each month (w/in reason of course!). My husband and I hope to bring this tradition into our family once we have children of our own.

  5. I had a feeling where this was going. I didn’t even know what a doobie was until I was in my 20′s. The Doobie Brothers. That’s what doobies were. Ha!

    Since we homeschool I try to take my youngest away from home to sit and talk with him. A change of scenery does us good.

  6. my husband does the same thing. my kids are super lucky!!

    great great post

  7. avatar
    Kristen says:

    Love it! You did a great job explaining it too. Such a good reminder to probe into questions a little before answering.

  8. Okay, that is hilarious. “Doobie doobie doo doo”.

    My oldest is currently having special time with her grandparents for a few days, so I am thoroughly enjoying rare one-on-one time with my youngest. It is so special to be with just him and give him the undivided attention that my firstborn got for so long. Both my husband and I have agreed that we would like to continue this habit of carving out special time with our children individually. Hopefully it will lead to many, many doobie conversations.

  9. avatar
    DebbieRN says:

    This is so good! And priceless. Imagine giving your loved ones the most valuable gift: your attention and interest. I will do it today!

  10. This is great. Our daughter is just 6-months-old, but I can already tell she needs her daddy so much. Thanks for taking the time to listen to your children and for encouraging us to do the same.

  11. So funny, but also a really great story about getting clarification.

    Even though you didn’t know the source, you still had a really awesome convo with your daughter. I definitley learned something about how to talk to kids by reading it, so thanks!

  12. What a great post! And what a great reminder too. I’m already looking forward to conversations like these with my son (he’s currently 16 mths old). Although I’m feeling a bit anxious too. :)

  13. Wonderful post.

  14. awesome. my sister who has 4 girls says this all the time. She also has 3 boys so she always says that girls need to be heard. Boys make themselves heard but girls you sort of have to pull the conversation out of them. You’re a great dad and those “dad dates” she will remember for life.

  15. Great story, definitely excited about all the times I have ahead (my little girl is just 14 months old). Sounds daunting but lots of fun too. Thanks for sharing!

  16. My daughters love to tell me their secrets at bedtime if I take the time to lay down with them for a few minutes instead of rushing off to enjoy the rest of my quiet evening. This isn’t how my son operates, though! I love how you point out that each child is different.

  17. Great article. One of the best I’ve read in a while. Thanks Shaun. I’ll be passing it along.

  18. That was very moving : i was tearing up !
    I can relate very much. It’s happened often that my kids ask a question and i go into long explanations and i realize at the end that i was completely besides the point. Which is why i try rephrase so i’m sure i’ve understood correctly…

  19. Great article! This is a pass-along one. My husband will love it :)

    Jenna
    momofmanyhats.blogspot.com

  20. Yes, a GREAT lesson in “Seek to understand before you seek to be understood.” I was wondering all along if she was actually asking something other than what you answered.

    Which reminded me of when my niece, while riding in the car with her mom and sister asked, “What is sex?” and before my shocked sister could answer, her older sis replied, “It’s your gender, whether you’re a boy or girl.”

    That sufficiently answered my niece’s question (for the moment).

    :)

  21. Okay, I have to admit I’m terrible at this. Being 4 on 1 all the time with my Wild Things – I rarely get one on one time with them. My husband is better about it though. He’ll take one to Walmart, one out to breakfast, one on a walk.

    …I should probably take a cue from you guys.

  22. I’m a single mother of three children and their little lives are fractured between childcare providers and more overnight trips to Daddy’s condo than anyone should have to deal with. It pains me how little one-on-one attention they receive, but I still make it a priority and trust that God will fill the gap and make me enough for them.

    I make it a practice to spend 10-15 minutes daily, usually at bedtime, with each one. We sing and rock (even the seven year old!), we talk about the day. In addition, I often pull one aside to join me in an activity that must be accomplished – a chore, even. While the boys are occupied on the swingset, I’ll ask my daughter to help me with the garden. While the younger ones are entranced in a cartoon, I’ll bring my oldests to help me with supper preparaton – all three love to ‘cook’ with me. While the older two are riding bikes, I’ll cuddle or read with my baby (now three years old).

    I also try to give space for them to share their feelings, to express frustrations and to mess up. I’m grateful for the closeness we now share and for the ways our non-traditional life has forced me to be more intentional in my parenting. Yes, it means a lot of giving up of my own time and interests, but I’m trusting the investment will be worth it.

    Thanks for the reminder!

  23. avatar
    Jill Marie says:

    I so enjoyed this post! I recently had this conversation with my 10 year old and all because of a movie I had rented that had received all sorts of good reviews and awards but probably should of watched first before presenting it on family movie night.
    I couldn’t agree more about spending quailty time together and really allowing our children to explore the questions they have. Some parents/adults just quickly dismiss such a subject and never really allow a child to learn.
    Learning, sharing together.
    I loved your post! Thank you!

  24. Oh. Oh this is good.

  25. My dad took my sisters and I on dates through our growing up years. We are all out of the house now, and STILL love to go out with Dad. So you have many happy years to look forward to!

    My husband is great already about taking our 2 YO daughter out with him on dates or even just on errands. What a blessing to her (and to him)!

  26. That is awesome! I read another post by a mom who freaked about because her son asked about an elephant’s nuts. Thankfully she probed a little bit and found out he meant PEANUTS, lol!
    My kids are mostly grown now, but it is so important that they have a time to be heard. One thing I woould do, especially as they got older, is take the time we spent riding in the car to and from activities to really talk and listen to them. We also read a lot of books out load and listened via CD and then spent time discussing the stories and the priniciples in them.
    LOL, now we text! They are all 18 and up!
    Bernice

  27. We’ve told our boys again and again that they are free to ask us or tell us anything. Then those moments come, and it’s not always easy to follow through.

    I just had a conversation with my fourth-grader about H.A.K.A.S. written in his yearbook. I asked him if he knew what it meant and then asked if he’d written the same in other people’s yearbooks. He could have lied, but he told me the truth. And regardless of how smoothly or well I handle these teachable moments, I’m so grateful he felt safe being honest with me. This is grace.

  28. When they were/are little, rubbing backs at bedtime allowed for concerns and questions to surface; when a little older – going on errands together or on a date opened up the time for talking about what was on their minds (we usually need to be out of the house or else we’ll be interupted); my teenage son likes us taking him out for a cheesburger (mostly as we almost never eat red meat at home :) but lately I’ve found that solo trips into the city together give him enough time to feel comfortable opening up for heart to heart discussions. Sometimes, my son will need to talk and pull me aside into my room and we’ll close the door so he can have privacy from siblings to open up about something on his mind. During ages of about 8-13, I’d have special read aloud books for my kids (ex. Lord of the Rings for my son or The Little Princess for my daughter) – we’d stay up later than the other kids and cuddle in bed or on the couch to read and that was very special one on one time.

    I am definitely guilty of long-winded answers to questions but I like that my son will let me know when I’m rambling :)

  29. Oh my goodness that was hilarious! And, I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve done the same thing. LOL So important for them to be heard BEFORE we answer! LOL

  30. We have had some conversations like this and they have been such precious times. We are preparing our children, teaching and training them, giving them legs to stand firm in their convictions…these little snippets of conversation are much more important than I think we can see right now…I have 6 children, ages 4-23. These conversations are the joy and confidence I have that they will stand firmly upon the rock, when the floods come.
    We are also building trust. They trust us and what we have said to them because we have given them time to let them know who we are.
    Teaching our children to pray to the Father that is always there and Who is willing to listen goes the distance. He is never too busy and He promised that He would never leave or forsake us…
    One other thought. These “listening times” are not just for kids. We all need them. :)
    Great topic and a good encouragement. Have a very Happy and Blessed Father’s Day!

  31. Awesome Awesome Awesome post. I loved it!! What a great father! Kids definitely ask some tough questions. I guess sometimes we need to look for the simple answers first! :)

  32. I’m glad you explained what a doobie was…cause I had no idea! Seriously! (is that good or bad? haha)

  33. avatar
    Jessica says:

    What an AWESOME post! I enjoyed the story, kinda knew where it was going b/c I’ve got a 7 year old, but I thought the end message was fantastic! We really do need to be good listeners to our kids, sometimes they dont even have questions but need someone to listen to their concerns. I also appreciated your blunt honesty, even with such a tough subject. Thanks for the reminder

  34. avatar
    Izabela says:

    Oh my! I have a 2-year old so the questions will come soon! Thank you for this post.

  35. I have to confess I didn’t know what a doobie was (outside of a song, that is) before I read this. LOL

    Excellent.

  36. i go on a lot of mommy/ty dates. and if i’m not sure what he’s asking about i say, “i don’t know…what do you think?”

  37. Haha! What a punchline…I wasn’t expecting that. Kids are too funny. My 5 year old also asks the most perplexing questions and it takes some time to get to the route of it. So funny!

  38. Being present for that window of opportunity is key. May we all be present for our “doobie” conversation! :)

  39. We have twin girls about to turn 5. Your story is spot on, these instances happen all the time. They ask about blood sugar (because they overheard someone with diabetes) or about whether unicorns are real, or whether wolves are scary. I have a playlist of songs on my iPhone that I play in the car — it’s half Disney songs and half 60′s/70′s vintage rock n roll — and I have to be so careful about every song I pick (“Sugar, Sugar”, “Barbara Ann”, “Your Momma Don’t Dance”, “Respect”, and “Wipeout” are among our favorites).

    Car time, especially the trip home from day care where they hear something new all the time, is great conversation time. It’s very common for them to say a new phrase (“darn it” was one they started with the other day) a few times, and then ask what it means. I ask who said it, and when, and then explain what it means. One asked the other day how the sun comes up in the morning. I told her I’d explain when we got home, and a few minutes later we pulled out some inflatable balls and sat on the floor and showed how the earth goes around the sun, and the moon around the earth. They were fascinated… for about 3 minutes, not bad for that age.

    If anyone has feedback, our children are having an “existential crisis” as my wife and I refer to it. They want to know where they were before they were in Mommy’s belly. They’ve decided that they were “dots”, and that way back before Daddy was born they were “tiny dots” and that way back before Grandma was born they were “teeny tiny dots”. Anyone have a better explanation?

  40. I think it is so important for dads to be plugged in!

  41. so funny! my five year old is a boy and his tough questions revolve mainly around God and death. i love that he is so inquisitive and my responses help me to grow and firm up my own beliefs.

  42. As a teenager, we always had breakfast together as a family (busy schedules = rare family dinners), but my Dad would always read the paper in the morning – including the Dear Abby column. He often would read the Dear Abby letters to us and ask us what we thought. I don’t know if it was intentional, but it was a brilliant way to casually talk about values and other challenging topics.

  43. Doobie!!! I am sputtering as I type!!! My kids take turns preparing and cleaning up from dinner. The conversation is usually just about the stuff of life, books read, school done or not, friends and so on… but many a heart has opened up over a sink full of soapy dishes. Theirs and mine!!!

  44. Some people smoke pot. It’s not that big a deal, and you don’t need to freak out your kid by telling her that the people who do are going to die. When I was little my mom was a hippie and my dad was a square, and his wife used to terrorize me by filling me with horror stories of what was going to happen to my mom because she sometimes smoked a f***ing plant. I realize this post is meant to be sweet and harmless, but sweet and harmless middle American will be the death of us all.

    • I’ll pass that on to my wife…the one who said you’re gonna die for smoking pot…I mean, your mom.

      I didn’t say that. I wouldn’t say that. Because I have no idea what pot does to your mom. THAT’S how “square” I am. ; )

      From middle America,

      Shaun

  45. avatar
    Aaron Edmonds says:

    Shaun. When I grow up, I want to be like you. ;)

    Thanks for your humility in sharing a valuable lesson.

  46. Wow. Thanks for this… It spoke to me.

  47. Excellent! Amen!

  48. Very interesting story. I can’t wait to have children in my life. You make me want to get married immediately.

  49. Loved this. As a daughter whose own father patiently answered questions, and who planned time with us so that we could have those conversations, this post not only reminded me of how grateful I am for my own parents, but the kind of parent I want to be.

    Although I can only speak from their experience, one of the ways my parents made time for us by including us in their lives. This isn’t to say they didn’t have time together – they did – but they made it a point to include us in what they were doing a lot of the times. From going to dad’s softball games to helping my mom prepare for VBS – we did things TOGETHER. And as a result we had a lot of time to ask, and answer, questions, so that they better understood me, and I better understood them.

  50. Loved this! So much, that I forwarded it to my husband. Thanks!

  51. That is the most adorable story!

    My son only says a few words so far, but I am learning to listen when he cries, instead of trying to get him to stop. It really increases my patience for him to consider that he has things he needs to express and just needs me to listen.

  52. I knew exactly where this was going as soon as you mentioned doobie. I *always* ask where Declan heard something, what it references, what HE thinks it is, before delving into ANY sensitive topics. I think I learned that with the word damn vs. dam. :)

  53. Your daughter is lucky to have a father who sees the value of being heard. So very important.

  54. Wonderfully written. I can chime in from the other side. I remember my Dad taking time out for me. We would go to a favorite lunch spot and chat, walk around the mall and chat, do yard work together, bike ride etc. He always had time to really listen to me no matter how big or small a subject. Those memories are some of my favorites and having your Dad listen to you is priceless.

  55. Very funny when something so innocent can give one the wrong idea!

  56. This is so true. How important it is to really listen.

    I have a sleepover with my kids once a week. My son normally falls asleep right away, but my 7 yr old daughter and I have had a lot of heart to hearts in the dark.

  57. I usually go out with my kids to eat at their favorite restaurant every Friday. I usually ask them about their day at school and they answer me with very random stories like how my daughter observed another classmate at school sneaking some glue as she was drawing.. I just hope she doesn’t pick up weird glue-eating habits!

  58. This is great. Usually I try to value-add with the comment but this post is complete and I can’t think of any more to add. Love the story, and the message. Thanks!

  59. Shaun, Loved your post! As a parent of two tweens, sometimes the conversation goes the other way; you think you’re talking about something innocuous, but they’re applying their school bus “education” to the situation. After seeing the latest Toy Story movie with my 10 and 12 year olds we were in the car remembering when Barbie says to Ken “Nice ascot!”– referring to his neckwear, of course. In the conversation I realized that both of my kids independently thought she was saying “Nice ass cut” — in reference to Ken’s haircut. My daughter said, “you know, because his hair had two humps on each side, with the part down the middle.” I don’t know why I would have thought that they knew what an “ascot” was but the whole conversation was amusing and a little bit horrifying at the same time. How many other kids out there think that Barbie had said such a thing?!?

    I do find that the two times when I connect with my kids in unexpected ways are in the car and at bedtime. I still climb up the ladder of my 13 year old son’s bunk bed and chat nose to nose every night. This is when “mom, can I ask you something?” leads to all sorts of precious and important conversations. Every single one is a treasure.

    You may enjoy a post about my husband’s way of connecting with our kids: allowing them to be silly and get away with a little something! http://www.olliebop.com/2011/05/what-happens-when-mr-bops-in-charge/

  60. I love this. I have sons and it is the same for me. I believe we need to listen to our sons too. I think that helping our kids, no matter what gender on the spectrum, to get facts straight, and talk out all the shades of emotions they see and experience, will help them to be better communicators, listeners and future parents as well as awesome individuals. Nice work Daddy!

  61. I’m a nanny therefore I get a lot of these tough questions instead of the responsible parties (parents.) I can’t wait to pass this post on to their dad, to let him know (gently) that he needs to be more engaged with his ten-year-old daughter. She’s growing up pretty fast and they seem to want to just throw a puberty book at her and run quickly from the room. My dad engaged with me even when it was embarrassing and I thank him every chance I can for raising me to be the kind of person who isn’t afraid to ask questions.

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